Rating the Murder Simulators

Originally written in December 2006 for GGL.com; images updated March 2009.

This holiday season has seen two seventh-gen console launches, so video games are back in the news. Mainstream media outlets, particularly local television news programs, seem to be devoted to two, and only two, video game-related memes, regardless of whatever is actually happening in the video game world.

The first is the hoary old “geeks wait in long lines to get a toy” meme, which is closely related to “parents fight each other to buy their spoiled kids a toy.” I guess I can’t be too judgmental – we did it here at GGL this year as well.

The other is “video games will turn your children into raging, murderous psychopaths.” For every positive story about video game culture, there are ten that decry this imminent menace to our children’s very lives.

Scientific studies claim to show a connection between “violent” video games and violent behavior in teens and grade school children. Politicians espouse anti-games rhetoric, and craft laws policing or preventing the sale of video games to children – laws that have to-date been struck down as unconstitutional. Large retailers place restrictions on video games sales, in response to pressure from pro-censorship groups.

I have already discussed why a video game cannot be “violent” or “dangerous.” This absurd idea, that video games are harmful to kids, never seems to go away, or to even die down. For politicians and religious leaders, the allure of this demonstrably false claim is easy to see. In the Sixties, these same forces assailed rock music. But now those sixties rockers are the parents; so the “culture wars” crowd must turn to things parents are less likely to understand. Today, those things are hip hop music and video games.

The most pernicious claim made by censorship advocates is that first- and third-person shooters are “murder simulators” that desensitize kids to extreme violence and train them how to kill. Some studies show that video games can excite and agitate youngsters; but it’s a big leap from there to assume games train kids to be killers.

Therefore, I have decided to review all of the “murder simulators” in our society, including video games, but not excluding the others. I challenge censorship advocates to explain why, of all the items on this list, they focus on “violent” video games.

Grand Theft Auto 2. This doesn't look so very violent...Video games

In recent years, censorship advocates have most commonly targeted Grand Theft Auto 3, and have labeled the game a “murder simulator.” The GTA games are third-person shooters – I would think a first-person shooter, like Halo or America’s Army, would better train a person to commit murder.

A few FPS games, like House of the Dead, are played with gun-shaped controllers. But most employ standard game controllers for console games, or a mouse and keyboard for PC games. They do not teach the player how to hold, load, or fire an actual gun. And Back to the Future 3 notwithstanding, I don’t think a gun-shaped controller really teaches anyone anything about real firearms.

The “aiming” skills required for an FPS game are completely different from those required in real life. “Aim assist, “friction,” and “client prediction” don’t exist in the real world. Aiming a gun is all about the wrists and arms, while “aiming” in an FPS is all about the thumbs on a console, or the mouse hand on a PC. There is no such thing as kickback with a game controller. Games often try to simulate things like kickback, muzzle flash, and reloading, but these simulations are nothing like the real thing.

Forget the guns – existence in an FPS or TPS game has little to do with real life. Movement is unrealistically smooth and quick (or the game would become boring). Video game characters are nearly impervious to pain and injury, enduring “violence” that would fell a real person, or at least put that person into shock. FPS characters can leap and climb better than a real human being. They get “health packs” and “power ups,” things we could definitely use in the real world, but which are, alas, unavailable. And when you die in an FPS, you “respawn” somewhere else. Why are all these unrealistic things included? Because it’s a game, not a simulator.

But doesn’t the army use video games to train soldiers? Sure, but they aren’t teaching how to kill, they’re teaching tactics. Before video games, they taught tactics with books, then films; now it’s games. But no drill sergeant is going to let his soldiers sit through a few gaming sessions and then send them to Iraq. The games are a small part of an intensive training course (see below). So could the Columbine murderers have learned their tactics from Doom? Sure. If their victims had been maniacal Martian demons with rudimentary decision-making powers, I suppose they could have.

The pro-censorship forces will insist that I am avoiding the real issue. Do “violent” video games desensitize our youth to violence, making them more likely to commit violence? No study has ever demonstrated this. Kids may become agitated after playing a game, but they do not objectify other humans. They maintain their sense of right and wrong. I myself am concerned about media, whether books, movies, television shows, or video games, that depict casual murder. It’s bad storytelling, and I believe it does desensitize everyone, child and adult, to the atrocities they hear on the evening news.

But it’s a huge leap from media burnout to murder. Censorship advocates want you to believe this connection is self-evident. In fact, it is self-evidently absurd, if for no other reason than this – not every person under 35 is a murderer.

In conclusion, video games are not terribly effective murder simulators. They improve reflexes and teach hallway-combat tactics; but they fail to prepare the participant for actual killing. Let’s move on.

LARPers. It is NOT weird.LARPing

Some people believe that live-action role-playing gamers represent the lowest, most pathetic level of geekdom. These people have never meet filkers, furries or fan-ficcers.

LARPing is like regular role-playing (Dungeons & Dragons and the like), except the players go to a public location, often in costume, and act out whatever their characters are doing. Players called “storytellers” act as referees, guiding the overall story and arbitrating player combats and disputes. Like most other RPGs, LARPs revolve around science-fiction, fantasy or horror themes, and involve some of the characters trying to kill other characters.

What value does LARPing have as a murder simulator? A player puts on a real outfit, travels to a real world location, and plays face-to-face against other human beings, sometimes friends but often mere acquaintances or total strangers. In most (but not all) LARPs, real weapons, fake weapons, and items that could pass for weapons are not allowed, and players may not touch each other. But in-game altercations can turn very loud and emotional. And players may see a long-term, beloved character slain as an outcome of a combat.There is real human contact, unlike with a standard video game; and you meet your enemy face-to-face, unlike an online game. And you have to deal with real emotions when you “kill” another player.

So, as a murder simulator, LARPing is not terribly satisfying. There are no weapons, no acrobatics, no visual scenes of violence. But you do pretend to kill people, and those people are standing right in front of you, expressing either real or “in-character” dismay at their own deaths. And because of that one characteristic, I proclaim LARPing to be a superior murder simulation experience to video games; it provides a human element missing from any computer game, even an online or LAN game.

Paintball player.Paintball

Now this sporting activity can, in all fairness, be called a “murder simulation.” You put on real military gear, go out to the real woods, and use a real gun to shoot real people. All the things that FPS games fail to simulate – holding a gun, aiming, firing with kickback, reloading, dodging, hiding, running, jumping, keeping sweat out of your goggles, even the pain of getting hit – all these things are REAL. And in paintball, one shot and you’re down – unlike video games with their health packs and respawns.

Of course, nobody gets hurt – not seriously, anyway. That’s what makes paintball a murder simulation, not murder.

Searching online, I could not find anyone claiming that paintball will teach young people to kill. Any reference to a paintball ban I could find was based on paintball guns being used in vandalism or in hold-ups. Strangely, no one is concerned that the real murder simulation is being used to train killers.

Now someone’s going to complain that I hate paintball. I have absolutely no problem with this sport whatsoever. I used to participate in something similar using shinai in a local park. I do not believe for a second that some kid is going to be turned into a murderer playing paintball.

But one wonders how the self-appointed stewards of child safety can justify attacking video games, and doing nothing about the horrific scourge of paint-filled plastic balls shot from air guns.

Hunting. It's pretty classy!Hunting

I’m tempted to say that sport hunting isn’t a murder simulation, it’s murder. Tempted, but I will restrain myself from sounding like one of those asshats at PETA. Killing an animal is not murder (with perhaps a few exceptions). And whatever your views on hunting, it does not help anyone to equate killing a deer with killing a human. They are not ethically equivalent. At all. Not even close. Not even on same planet.

That said, as a murder simulator, hunting takes paintball and elevates it to the next level. Not only do you get a real gun with real bullets, but you do real killing. Not the killing of a human, but still.

If I were planning to actually go out and kill people, I would practice by going hunting. It creates the single most realistic environment to hone those murdering skills. In fact, it has everything but human victims. If I’m worried that any of my victims will fight back, I’ll just hunt boar.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any online complaints about hunting teaching kids to become murderers. Anti-hunting activists focus exclusively on the suffering of animals. Just for even suggesting a link between hunting and murder, I’m sure I’ll get nasty emails from the NRA and other pro-gun extremists. Fire away (heh heh). I’m not suggesting that hunting creates murderers. I’m suggesting that hunting is a much better way to learn to commit murder than a video game.

No, seriously, it's this long when it's flaccid...Military training

Now we reach the crème de la crème of murder simulations.  In the military, people who have actually killed people will give you a real gun and teach you to kill people. Not how to shoot targets, or to hunt deer – how to kill people. And they won’t stick just to guns, either. You’ll learn tons of fun mêlée and ranged combat techniques. You’ll go out to the real desert and shoot at real people with real bullets. And when you’re ready, they’ll send you out to commit real murder.

Oh, here we go. Suggest that what the military does is “murder,” and you must be a Commie pinko subversive terrorist. My argument has nothing to do with whatever it is soldiers do in the field; whether it is murder, or justifiable homicide, or self-defense, or peacekeeping. My only concern is, does military training teach you the skills to be a murderer better than a video game does?

Unlike any other type of training, military training teaches young people to dehumanize other humans. Whether this is justifiable or not is beside the point. The military teaches people to kill people, and to feel minimal remorse afterwards. End of story.

Whether or not military training is good or bad or both, whether or not a trained soldier is a good or bad person or both, that soldier is eventually returned to society, where there is not a Viet Cong or Iraqi insurgent around every corner. I’m not aware of any “untraining” to re-instill human compassion back in a soldier. It seems police officers sometimes have the same problem, suffering from the possibly unavoidable dehumanizing aspects of their work. And yet, should we lock up our veterans? Should we ban military training? Or should we create a kindler, gentler military?

I suppose we only need ask these questions if we are so concerned about the effect of murder simulations on our society. Will we prevent murders if we never, ever teach anyone how to kill, and never ever represent murder in the media? This is an open question, and a much more complicated one than some people would like for you to believe. But let me suggest that actually teaching people how to use a gun and kill people MUST be more dangerous than creating a game where people fake-kill fake-people.

Conclusion

So there we have it: five different murder simulators, all accepted by mainstream American society, but only is one under attack as detrimental to the moral hygiene of our youth. Strangely, only one is not traditionally associated with right-wing political values, but rather with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. And strangely, it’s the same one.

Is it possible that those who wish to censor video games aren’t really concerned with the safety of children? That the real goal is not to prevent children from learning how to murder?

If so, then I can’t imagine what the real goal of all this is. Even the U.S. Army created a video game, a “violent” tactical FPS, to promote recruitment, apparently with some success. Could the real goal, for politicians, be to get votes from Baby Boomers ignorant of gaming? Could the real goal for pundits be to get their faces on CNN?

Nah. That would just be cynical exploitation, not of the games industry, which can defend itself just fine, but of children. Politicians and pundits wouldn’t exploit children, would they?

There Is No Such Thing As A “Violent” Video Game

Originally posted 7/11/06 on GGL.com.

Augh!I am a pedant. I care about language and words, and how they are used. Use language with exactitude and precision, and one can convey deeper meaning with fewer words. In other words, eschew obfuscation.

What do the following six situations have in common?

1.) You are playing Grand Theft Auto 3. After enjoying the off-screen services of a prostitute, you beat her up and steal her money.
2.) In Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, your 1st level female Halfling rogue smashes open a wooden crate with her +1 morningstar, and steals a stack of gold coins.
3.) In Halo 2 multiplayer, you frag an opponent from a hidden position with a sniper rifle, putting a round into his head.

Or…

4.) Down on Hollywood Boulevard, you avail yourself of the services of a prostitute. Afterward, you beat her up and steal her money.
5.) In Beverly Hills, you smash open a store window with a crowbar, and steal some gold jewelry.
6.) At the urging of your adult male friend, you hide along Interstate 95 with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle, and kill an innocent stranger by shooting her in the head.

Any sane person will recognize that the first three scenarios are markedly different from the second three. Yet in standard American English, each scenario is described as “violent.”

If we can say that “shooting” an enemy in Halo 2 is “violent,” and shooting a real person with a real gun is “violent,” then what exactly does”violent” mean?

We do not have a word that means “depicting, or analogous to, violence.” Violencistic? Violentesque? Because of this, it become very easy to conflate “violent” (“marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”) with “violent” (“representing or describing a situation marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”).

So imagining or reenacting something that would be a violent act becomes a violent act, at least linguistically.

And as we can see from the media and political hyperbole regarding “violent” video games, many people cannot, or choose not to, discern the linguistic difference.

Let’s consider the difference between scenarios five and six. Is there no difference between violence against property and violence against persons? This question was debated heavily in the news media at the time of the anti-globalization riots in 1999. Many on the anti-globalization Left argued that violence against property was not the same as violence against people, and was therefore permissible as social protest. Many others disagreed.

Those who criticize video game and television violence have recognized this distinction in the past, to a certain extent. Think of all the video games and Saturday morning cartoons in which the “violence” is perpetrated against robots instead of people. Sonic the Hedgehog can smash all of Dr. Robotnik’s robots — that’s not violent, is it? Especially when he’s freeing all those little chicks and bunnies?

Today, however, the distinction between violence against people and against inanimate objects seems to have disappeared, even when talking about fictional or imaginary violence. Shooting a crate and shooting a person become conflated, just as imagining the violence and realizing it are conflated.

I become incensed whenever censorship advocates describe a video game (or movie or book or song) as “violent” or “dangerous.” Perhaps it’s too pedantic or simplistic to insist that a video game can not hurt you. Unless your Xbox 360 power supply electrocutes you or crushes you under its incredible weight, it can’t injure you. Unless it gives you a paper cut, a book can not do you harm. A movie never sent anyone to the hospital, unless the overpriced combination of Coca Cola and Red Vines gave them a stomach ache.

Yet when Senator Hillary Clinton released her guide for parents last month, it was entitled Media Safety. In addition to describing certain media as “age-inappropriate” and “offensive,” she decried some web content, TV shows and video games as “dangerous.”

Yes, parents, you must worry about your child’s “safety” from all these “dangerous” media. Dangerous how?

Can TV shows and video games be age-inappropriate? Absolutely. Obviously, children can be confused, frightened, even emotionally harmed by the adult themes implicit in images of violence, horror, and eroticism. Personally, I’m more concerned when a child views a scene of casual murder, even when the violence occurs off-screen, than I am about a scene of cartoon violence or of sexuality. But honestly, parents should be reasonably able to prevent their children from accessing media with adult themes.

Reasonably able. The effort to “protect” children from adult media absolutely can not prevent adults from producing and consuming media as they see fit. And certain kinds of media — video games, comic books, and animation — cannot be labeled “child-only.” The world is full of adult games and comics. Parents who can not discern the difference are the problem, not the producers of the GTA games or of Japanese tentacle porn.

Censorship advocates insist that exposure to violent images can induce violent behavior. Therefore, the logic goes, the violent image caused the violent behavior. This line of reasoning fails on many levels.

Studies vetted by the American Psychological Association demonstrate that children exhibit an increase in violent behavior for a period of time after exposure to violent images. First of all, we can safely assume that the behavior described by the researchers as violent did not include physical attacks on other children. If it did, the researchers would be guilty of ethics violations. We can assume the affected children were “acting up.”

Second, the APA has yet to compare the reactions of children to images of sporting events, or to actual participation in sporting events. The same people who believe you should not pretend to hurt people on a computer advocate that you should slam the hell out of a quarterback or punch your boxing opponent in the face. These activities are wholesome, healthy and non-violent? No, they are simply traditionally accepted in our society.

Let’s see the reactions of children to video games compared to their reactions to loud music, or a hunting program on TV, or an argument between their parents. Let’s study how various factors in a child’s life impact their behavior. That is a complex undertaking, and thousands of child psychologists and sociologists are hard at work on it right now. But these aren’t the people who put out simplistic reports linking video games with violence.

Third, let us assume that “violent” video games cause a certain amount of “acting up” in a minority of children. Would this justify a ban on sales of certain games to minors? Would this justify censorship of game content, even self-imposed industry censorship?

For a hundred years, shrill conservatives have blamed the mass media for the corruption of our children. First it was the novels of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain; then Frank Sinatra and his Bobby-Soxers; then Elvis, the Beatles, television, movies, rap music and video games. Every one of these pop culture phenomena was described as a “danger” to our children, by opportunistic politicians and religious figures who prey on parents’ ignorance about popular culture.

Parents are bombarded with false “dangers” to their children (terrorism, razors in Halloween candy, stranger abductions, Satanism, school shootings). None of these is a real threat to your child — but what parent wants to be the one who did nothing, and their child is the one who gets hurt?

A video game will never hurt your child. It will not turn them into the Trench Coat Mafia. You have the right to tell your child what they can buy, and what they can play — but you do not have the right to tell me. Even if your child were in danger, you would not have the right to tell me.

But your child is safe. Pay attention to the media they consume, not just the video games. Try to keep on top of what they see and do in school and at their friends’ houses. Teach them what you feel is appropriate, and expect them to respect your wishes.

But see the video game “threat” for what it is — no threat at all.

Guardian: Will videogames create a two-tiered society?

Originally posted 7/20/07 on GGL.com

A blogger for Britain’s influential Guardian newspaper is asking, “Will playing games create a two-tiered society?” Writer Bobbie Johnson, the Guardian’s technology correspondent, writes in response to a Discovery magazine article touting the benefits of video game playing.

Studies have indicated that young people who play video games have increased abilities in reasoning, puzzle solving, and “forward thinking” (although it has been pointed out that kids who already possess these abilities may be attracted to playing video games.)

Johnson asks:

Given the increasing interest in virtual worlds and near-game environments, it’s not hard to imagine that some people will adapt much more quickly to a futurenet based around 3D – the kind of thing imagined by William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.

But given the research mentioned, will we end up with a divided society? Imagine a future internet where games players have a massive advantage over ordinary users. Will we see a divide between the visually literate and those who just don’t (or can’t) get it?

It’s an interesting question. It’s one thing to have economic and caste inequities – but a medieval lord was no more or less intelligent than the average peasant (and not always better educated). The science of anthropology, invented in the 19th century to prove that some races were inherently better than others, instead showed by the middle of the 20th century that “racial” differences were shallow, and that intelligence has no correlation to race or ethnicity. Is technology moving us towards a world where one set of people is demonstrably more intelligent than another?

Science fiction has dealt with this question many times; Huxley’s Brave New World and Wells’s The Time Machine are the most famous examples. Technological enhancement of the human mind is a common theme in cyberpunk fiction; and as in Gibson’s Neuromancer, not everyone can afford these enhancements.

Video games don’t directly enhance intelligence. But they train the brain, and not just in ways that help a player use a computer. (And I don’t think there will be a 3D “futurenet” as described by Gibson. Why direct an avatar through a maze of pretty 3D representations of web sites, when I can just click on a name on a list? See what I mean?)

A well-designed game teaches critical thinking (the single most important intellectual skill), reasoning, prediction and communication. It heightens visual skills and the reflexes. And the game content can be as mind-expanding as any book, film or music album.

I’m concerned about economic inequities that will lead to technological and intellectual castes. But that seems to be an issue for 50 years from now. Right now, we’re seeing a large segment of society choose to limit their own intellectual growth, both technologically and otherwise, for what they errantly see as moral reasons.

My mind is so advanced, I have chosen to present my argument as a chart.

Intellectual Enhancement Counter-intellectual Response The “reason” for the response
It's-a Mario!
Videogaming.
Jack Thompson.
Banning games.
Klebold & Harris.
Games engender violence, crime, moral corruption and asocial behavior.
The World Wide Web.  Information Superhighway.  Cyberspace.  The Net.
Internet use.
Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The Internet is a series of tubes.  It's not a truck.
Internet censorship, tiered Internet, apathy.
Hey! I was looking at those!
The Internet is for porn, intellectual property theft, and plotting terrorism. It should be used only for business and profit. Also, it’s too hard to bother to learn how it works.
Stephen Hawking is smarter than you.  He could probably kick your ass, too.
Math, science, logic, & computer programming education.
George W. Bush wants you to know what he thinks of you.
No Child Left behind.
Shop class.  Well, carpenters and plumbers do make more than most physicists.  And more than most games journalists.
Schools should prepare kids for vocations; let the smart ones get scholarships.
Rock me, Amadeus.  Amadeus Amadeus.
Arts, music and history education.
Piss Christ.  If you don't know, look it up.
No funding; censorship of art, music, history texts.
The animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.  He never mentions that he opposed freeing the slaves for most of his career.
Why am I going to need to know this? And teaching real history is unpatriotic.
Timothy Leary.
Pharmacology.
Winners don't do drugs!  And FBI Director William S. Sessions is a winner!
Banning development of mind-enhancing drugs.
I took my Paxil today.  That's why I'm not in the EG chat, flaming n00bs.
It’s okay to use drugs to treat mental illnesses and neuroses; but enhancing the healthy is unethical.
It's a very, very small digital camera.  Very sneaky.
Photography, sound recording.
How dare you take a photo?  In a public place?  Whaddya think, there's a First Amendment or something?
Banning photography and recording in public places, businesses.
The Rodney King video.
Intellectual property protection, privacy.
You'd think discovering the Secret of Life would cheer you up a bit.
Evolution.
Yes, that's Jesus.  Riding a dinosaur.  Seriously.
Creationism.
Ted Haggard isn't gay. It's all a big misunderstanding.
The only way to be moral is to believe the Bible is inerrant.
One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.
Science.
Yep. Distilled water can cure anything.
Pseudo-science.
Ben Stein
If a scientific discovery doesn’t not fit with my political (global warming) or religious (cloning, physicalism, evolution) proclivities, it must be wrong.
Richard Dawkins.
Atheism, religious criticism, religious pluralism.
One of the Danish cartoons that can get you killed.
Political correctness, censorship, threats against authors and cartoonists.
Burning The Satanic Verses.
Criticizing religion is the same as oppressing the religious.

It’s one thing to have intellectual inequity forced upon you. It’s quite another to chose to hobble your own ability to think and reason, especially in a democracy. If your political, religious or ethical philosophy is rigorous enough, you should not need protection from competing ideas. If your lifestyle is successful, it should not require protection from new technologies.

If videogames were actually harmful, I would be the first to quit my job and come out against them. But I know from my own personal experience they are not; and as a writer I have carefully examined the arguments and studies for and against. The only way to believe videogaming itself hurts children is to be intentionally ignorant.

I call people who choose anti-intellectualism the “Stupid-American Community.” It’s a community that’s growing. And that’s the “two-tiered society” that worries me.